All eyes focused on Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he made his debate debut Wednesday evening at the fourth GOP showdown, this one hosted by Politico and NBC.
Surging in the national presidential polls, Perry joined seven other Republican White House hopefuls at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams and Politico’s John F. Harris grilled candidates on foreign policy, health care, national security and climate change, leaving social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage mostly out of the dialogue.
Moderators asked the governor to address Texas’ substantial lag in key areas when compared to other states, including its position as last in number of uninsured residents and its low high school completion rates. When questioned about the cause of the state’s staggering number of those without health care — 26 percent of those under age 65 — Perry pointed to the federal government as the culprit.
Perry also downplayed the consequences of public education cuts made this legislative session under his governorship — $4 billion slashed from K-12 classrooms, leaving an estimated 12,000 teachers out of work — calling them “thoughtful reductions absorbed by our schools.”
Perry jumped back into echoing his past controversial statements about Social Security, once again calling it a “Ponzi scheme” — a sentiment expressed in his anti-Washington book “Fed Up!” which has become an anchor for his campaign rhetoric.
“Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right,” he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who many consider Perry’s most formidable opponent, shot back with a defense of the system and its benefit to senior citizens saying, “our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.”
Often evading direct answers to questions, Perry took the opportunity to swing his replies back to his jobs creation record, figures revealed to be misleading by previous reporting from the Texas Independent. Perry claims to have secured Texas as the hub for job growth nationally, though many of those jobs are low-paying ones.
“We’ve created 1 million jobs in the state of Texas at the same time America lost 2.5 million,” said Perry. But from 2007 to 2010, the number of Texans earning minimum wage or less increased 150 percent — 330,000 jobs — solidifying Texas as the nation’s minimum wage jobs leader, a fact moderators were quick to point out.
“95 percent of jobs we created were above minimum wage,” Perry countered — though his campaign’s justification for that statistic was a 2010 measure, that 5.3 percent of all Texas jobs were hourly minimum wage ones. Only hourly jobs — just over half the total jobs in Texas — can be factored into minimum wage measures, but of those, 9.5 percent of them are at or below the minimum wage.
Perry’s “95 percent of jobs” measure is misleading, then, because he’s not talking at all about jobs “we created,” but total jobs in Texas last year. Under Perry’s watch, the proportion of hourly jobs at or below the minimum wage rose from 5.8 percent in 2000 to 9.5 percent in 2010 — but as PolitiFact reported during the 2010 Texas governor’s race, increases in how much minimum wage pays complicate the question. It’s impossible to tell how many of those are new jobs added at minimum wage, and how many are old jobs drawn into the measure because the minimum wage was raised.
Without getting bogged down in his statistics, Romney took aim at other aspects of Perry’s job growth record, pointing to Texas’ lack of state income tax, its status as a “right-to-work” state and rich natural resources as contributing factors, opening up a heated exchange between the two presidential hopefuls.
“Gov. Perry doesn’t believe he created those things. If he tried to say that, it’s like Al Gore saying he created the Internet,” said Romney.
Perry went back to statistics, answering, “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than [Romney] created in four years in Massachusetts.” He said former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis created three times more jobs than Romney did. Romney charged back, claiming George W. Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than Perry.
During his first presidential debate Perry said, “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party,” but the GOP contender didn’t shy from swinging back at his opponents, including U.S. Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), who noted Perry’s support for Hillary Clinton’s health care plan while he was Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Perry responded with some old dirt of his own, bringing up a letter Paul wrote to Ronald Reagan in the late 80s, renouncing the former president after the country became mired in massive debt as result of his policies.
Perry did own what’s likely to be the night’s most remembered moment, late in the debate when he was asked if he has lost sleep over the 234 executions he’s presided over as Texas governor. Before he could answer, the question received a chilling, immediate round of applause from the audience. Perry said no, he didn’t lose sleep over it, “I think Americans understand justice.”